August 3, 2006
The Israeli woman in the hot tub was feeling terrible.
She saw me wearing a T-shirt with Hebrew writing, and I heard her speaking to her daughter in Hebrew, so naturally, amid the hundreds of sunbathers crowding the pool area of the Squaw Valley Resort, we found each other.
"It feels good to find someone to talk to about it," she said.
By "it" she meant the situation her parents and extended family, who live on a kibbutz in the middle of the country, are facing.
The snow-capped Sierras jutted into a deeply blue sky. The hot tub bubbled away. "Israelis don't want to run away when there's a war," the woman explained. "We want to run home."
The night before, a relative from a northern kibbutz had e-mailed her a slide show of the after-effects of a Hezbollah rocket attack, and she had stayed awake playing it over and over in her hotel room.
All around us kids splashed, adults sipped pastel-colored rum drinks, the sunlight bounced off distant glaciers -- and the Israeli woman told me she couldn't relax.
What a week to vacation.
My wife and kids and I drove up U.S. Highway 395, crossed the Monitor Pass through a remote and perfect alpine landscape. But I am a subscriber to Sirius satellite radio, so as we descended through Markleeville, population 52, we heard CNN's report on Israel's gathering momentum for a ground invasion of Lebanon.
There was no cell phone reception at our little rented cabin near the west shore of Lake Tahoe, no Internet hot spots. But DISH network saucers grew at the base of the tall pines like forest mushrooms. By day we joined vacationers in serious pursuit of escape -- tubing down the Truckee River, leaping off the dock into the deep, cold lake. At night, we watched missiles rain down on northern Israel and air strikes in Beirut. I turned away from the TV after realizing I was spending more time with CNN correspondent John Roberts, "reporting from the Israel-Lebanon border" than I was with my kids.
But the news kept coming. After a day at Sugar Pine Point State Park, an idyllic spot where Isaiah W. Hellman built a fine mansion on a quiet stretch of beach, I logged on to my e-mail to find that a deranged man had shot his way into the Seattle Federation building, killing Pamela Waechter, 58, and wounding four others.
At the gym at Squaw Creek, two men argued over Israel's new war.
"At least we're out of this one," said one.
"Are you kidding?" his friend countered.
On cue, images of demonstrators in the streets of Beirut filled the flat screen mounted to his Stairmaster. "We get blamed for everything Israel does." It's a truism that technology has shrunk the globe and brought the tribulations of distant lands to our doorstep, or to our vacations. As much as we try to pretend there's a faraway "they" and a safe and sheltered "we," there are precious few places left to hide for long.
That goes double, triple for Jews. History has shown that world events have a way of catching up to Jews to us quickly, sometimes brutally. Until they do, each one of us chooses our place on the sliding scale from they to we. We can luxuriate in selecting the extent of our identity, the depth of our involvement -- until we can't.
The we-ness of our world came home to me as we dropped our son off for a stay at Camp Tawonga, a venerable Jewish camp tucked into a Tuolumne River valley. I noticed the roster listed several campers from towns in northern Israel -- Kiryat Shemona, Metulla.
Camp director Ann B. Gonski told me that, for several years now, Tawonga has hosted Israeli children and counselors from northern Israel -- Kiryat Shemona is a sister city to San Francisco's Jewish community. This year there are 34 Israelis at the camp, sponsored largely by the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Foundation.
For these kids, Gonski said, camp will be a special respite from the violence. In the past the rules were one phone call home per week per Israeli. "This year," she said, "we're open to a lot more communication" As for counselors, Gonski said the Americans have received special training to deal with their Israeli counterparts: "We've told them, remember that your colleagues are really stressed. Be there for them, they're a long way from home."
As for my wife, daughter and me, we drove home, straight into the brouhaha about Mel Gibson's anti-Semitic rant. Now firmly ensconced behind my desk, I asked my friend Bryan, a television director, what accounted for the public silence from so many Hollywood Jews. Where was the sense of identity, of a communal fate that transcends business? Can't they see a direct correction between those who hate Jews and those, like the Seattle shooter, who act on their hatred? Why don't they choose to identify, like the people in Camp Tawonga, with a larger, communal need?
"Everybody has their head in the Garden of Finzi Contini and wants this all to go away," Bryan said, citing the movie about Italian Jews oblivious to the impending Holocaust. "It's actually the Garden of Malibu Contini -- everybody's playing tennis and golf and refusing to accept that hatred of this magnitude exists at the exclusive sushi table next to them."
That is, until the vacation is over.